Drug abuse tale Beautiful Boy yearns to be an important film

by James Robins / 04 December, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - Beautiful Boy movie

But good intentions can’t compensate for lacklustre delivery in director Felix Van Groeningen's Beautiful Boy.

Beautiful Boy yearns to be an important film. It’s a weighty family saga based on a pair of memoirs from journalist David Sheff and his son, Nic, both released in 2008. They explored two sides of drug addiction: Nic’s decline into meth dependency and self-destruction, and David’s attempts to pull him back from the brink.

It’s an important subject. But Beautiful Boy, not for want of trying, fails to land much of an emotional blow.

It’s mostly a problem of perspective. Charismatic, intelligent – indeed, beautiful – Nic (Timothée Chalamet) is largely seen through the eyes of his father (Steve Carell): a carefree teenager who becomes a malignant cancer at the heart of the family.

Just as he did in the exquisite Call Me By Your Name, Chalamet throws himself headlong into the role, but Nic’s descent happens largely unseen. Beautiful Boy dares not venture far into Nic’s memoir, Tweak, laced as it is with accounts of prostitution and dealing.

Indeed, the chief reason for David’s upset is not the debauchery of his son’s actions, but that he failed to live up to his expectations. As parents say: not angry, just disappointed.

Carell can certainly play reserved, put-upon, bedraggled. However, the moments demanding explosions of exasperation seem beyond him. His frustrated cries or temper flare-ups come off as whiny, indignant and inauthentic.

What also eludes the story is a reason for Nic’s compulsion. He passes through a phase of liking the infamously addled writer Charles Bukowski, howls along to Nirvana, keeps a copy of F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and the Damned. Is it a kind of misplaced romanticism? All he can muster when pressed is that meth “takes the edge off stupid everyday reality”. That’s the closest we get to an explanation, provoking the more troubling thought that addiction needs no trigger, no trauma.

As a pattern of relapse-recovery-relapse emerges, the film uses music as a crutch, or perhaps a prompt, pointing the way to how we’re supposed to feel. The soundtrack swells and we’re supposed to brace ourselves for the welling tears. By the time we hear Neil Young’s Heart of Gold (“I wanna live, I wanna give”), though, the rush has already worn off. It leaves you with a hollow feeling and a dissatisfied comedown.

Video: Amazon Studios

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★

This article was first published in the December 8, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

Latest

How Whangārei became New Zealand's home of jugger
99256 2018-12-12 00:00:00Z Life in NZ

How Whangārei became New Zealand's home of jugger

by Michael Botur

On every second Sabbath, grown men and women armed with foam chase a dog skull around Whangārei’s Kensington Park.

Read more
New Zealand's silent Pasifika mental health crisis
100357 2018-12-11 17:18:21Z Health

New Zealand's silent Pasifika mental health crisis…

by Indira Stewart

What do you do if your culture treats mental illness like a curse? Bury it deep.

Read more
The smart speaker with a screen: How does the Amazon Echo Show stack up?
100317 2018-12-11 15:10:01Z Tech

The smart speaker with a screen: How does the Amaz…

by Peter Griffin

A review of the Amazon Echo Show smart speaker.

Read more
Domestic violence: 'There's a huge amount of work that needs to be done' – PM
100265 2018-12-11 10:30:17Z Social issues

Domestic violence: 'There's a huge amount of work …

by RNZ

Grace Millane's death is a reminder of the work that needs to be done to reduce violence directed at women in this country, says the PM.

Read more
Finally, a trio of chunky referendum issues to spice up the next election
99872 2018-12-11 00:00:00Z Politics

Finally, a trio of chunky referendum issues to spi…

by Bevan Rapson

The possibility of Kiwis voting on three contentious issues – euthanasia, cannabis and an MMP shakeup – is like crowdsourcing political decisions.

Read more
The bullying allegations show that Parliament needs transparency
100228 2018-12-11 00:00:00Z Politics

The bullying allegations show that Parliament need…

by Bill Ralston

As a review stalks bullies in the corridors of power, Bill Ralston writes that abuse thrives in the darkness.

Read more
Mortal Engines is like Star Wars on Middle-earth but lacks memorable characters
100219 2018-12-11 00:00:00Z Movies

Mortal Engines is like Star Wars on Middle-earth b…

by Russell Baillie

In a world where cities are humungous all-terrain vehicles, Peter Jackson’s protégé gets bogged down.

Read more
How art therapy is helping stroke victims speak a new language
99448 2018-12-11 00:00:00Z Health

How art therapy is helping stroke victims speak a …

by Donna Chisholm

re-stART, an Auckland art therapy programme, is thought to be the first in the world targeting stroke survivors.

Read more